Aurinko slid Leikata slowly back into its sheath, as though afraid any sudden movement might cause the vision before him to shatter. “Grandfather, it’s me.”
The elderly Kaarme Phry seated at the light forge stood gingerly, levering himself up with the help of the dimly lit console. His voice was gravelly, rasping, like a rusted machine lurching into motion. “Greetings, Lightcutter.” The humming from the construction surface behind him rose as the light from its surface grew, pushing back the heavy shadows of the massive vault.
Aurinko froze, eyes going wide as the older man turned towards him. No, oh no, no, no… This was not his grandfather. The thing peering back at him had his grandfather’s shape, true, but there was nothing of the Kaarme’s kindly caretaker within. The lab coat it was clothed in had once been pristinely white, worn over dark pants and a button-down shirt. Now the garments were rent and torn, revealing wounds weeping a foul effluvia that stained what was left of the fabric. Long claw marks marred the once familiar face, and as the head turned the swordsman realized its crest had been shattered and then reassembled with a sickening arrangement of bonefuse and staples.
But the eyes were the worst. Aurinko’s grandfather had had gentle eyes, eyes filled with inquisitive intelligence and nigh boundless enthusiasm. The corpse-rider’s eyes were dead, vacuous, but for a cruelty as cold as the null-space opened by Leikata’s blade. It laughed at the shock and disgust mingling on the Kaarme Phry’s face. The sound was vile, grating and scraping at the swordsman’s ears, doubling and redoubling as it echoed through the vastness. “Dost it cark thee, Lightcutter? Be thou overwrought?”
The Kaarme’s right arm whipped up, drawing the assault carbine hovering at his back. His voice was rough with a welter of emotions too raw to sort through. “Let. Him. Go.”
Its sawing laughter rebounded through the chamber again. “Thou canst not be so foolish. This flesh is dead, fallen as thou did flee this place.” The corpse smiled, a sickening expression revealing rotted, broken fangs. “Though once thou swore to give thy dying breath in his defense.”
“It was what he wanted,” Aurinko snarled, advancing a step. “He was a good man, and you profane everything he built.”
“Everything thou didst abandon.”
“No!” The Kaarme Phry’s armor flared to life, projectors mounted on his shoulders sheathing his arms in dazzling geometries of hardened light. Spikes crackled down his spine and tail as he snugged the carbine’s stock to his shoulder.
“Come,” crooned the corpse-rider, spreading its arms open in invitation. “Oh, do come, Lightcutter. How I long to clutch thee. Ah... but I waited, and wait I shall. Mm... and for reward, perhaps thou shall be mine next host. He comes now. Canst not thou feel his drawing near?”
Aurinko glared down the holosight, unable to stop a shiver of unease from rippling down his spine. “What are you talking about?”
It laughed once more, then began to twitch and jerk, paroxysms of something that might have been pain wracking through it. Spines pushed their way from its ichorous wounds, as if something else was clawing its way out of the fleshy prison that had once been the Kaarme’s grandfather. The corpse’s eyes burst in blazes of lurid eldritch light. Bones cracked and flesh writhed as a voice like the death of stars rolled from its throat. “I... Sssseeeee... Yooou.”
The Kaarme Phry cried out as the utterance crashed against him like a physical force, driving him to his knees and sending his carbine spiraling from his hands and into the hungry darkness below. Aurinko buckled, slamming his right hand down to stop himself from slumping to the catwalk while his left gripped at his throbbing skull. “D-D-Darkener.”
“Yesss…” It seemed to swell, stretching with the crackling protest of sinew and tendon. “The little losst lamb. Curiousss. Thought you fled, I did.”
Snarling, the Kaarme pushed himself up to glare at the dark entity while his hand reached for the nearby railing. “T-told… P-promised… Found a way back.”
The Darkener laughed, and if the laughter of its herald had been painful, this was nigh unendurable. Aurinko was slammed to the catwalk, blood rilling from his eyes and ears in lukewarm streams. “Fool. There iss no back for ssuch assss you.”
Defiant, the swordsman levered his battered body upright again. “The cut was made. I went back. I. Will. Stop this.”
“But it hasss already happened.”
Aurinko crossed his arms before himself, and rather than being cast down, this time he was driven backwards several feet. The sound from the projectors on his shoulders shifted from a hum to a whine, combating the abominable force chewing into the hardened light. “It will not happen again.”
“No, no it will not,” chuckled the Darkener. “You fail to ssee, Lightcutter. But I am merciful. I will… illumine your ignorance.”
The planes of hardlight along the Kaarme Phry’s arms began to hiss and sizzle, some obscene force or emanation from the Darkener chewing hungrily into the defense. Their whine became a howl as the projectors fought to reinforce the plates, until they blew out in simultaneous eruptions of crystalline shards. The swordsman cried out as a vice of agony fastened around his skull. Images, sounds, scents, and tastes all shuddered through his senses in a torrent, wheeling and splashing away like water continuously poured into an overfull glass.
“It isss sssad, thisss ignorance. You think you have gone back. But in truth, you have only... ssstepped assside. The multiverssse iss uncountable pathss in parallel, each disstinguissshed with itss own feeling, itsss own… vibration. Consssider two mirrorss sstanding in opposssition. Look then to the left or right, and sssee infinity sspiraling away.” The Darkener laughed again. “Did you not feel the difference? Ah, but you did. You ssimply dismisssed it, telling yoursself it wass nothing more than a passsing fancy. You cut back, you insssisst. In truth, you ssimply cut a hole through the mirror.” Spine-rent arms lifted, motioning to the sterile waste the Forge had become. “Ssuch sssacrifice, for a fool’ss error. He wasss wrong, Lightcutter.”
Aurinko wheezed, shaking and spitting blood as he pushed himself up from the metal grating of the catwalk once again. “Even i-if… Even if we were wrong… nothing changes.”
“No?” The Darkener snorted derisively. “You will never find you way home, Lightcutter. Your life hass been a fruitlesss quest for an objective you can never obtain.” Leering through the blackened teeth of its ruined mouth, the entity continued, “but sshould your appetite for torment be unssated, know that a breach for you isss a breach for me. Once I have finissshed with this place, I sshall reach out my hand to blight your new home. Perhapsss I sshall ssseek out your little rikka.”
“No.” The Kaarme Phry grasped the railing and hauled himself to his feet, leaning on it for support.
“You would deny me? What harm could you offer me, flessshling?”
Settling his hand on Leikata’s hilt, Aurinko drew the weapon with careful deliberation. “I don’t know. But whatever you say, I am here, now. I suppose we will both find out.”
Hissing, the entity flicked one hand in a dismissive gesture, and the katana’s blade burst apart in a hail of cutting shrapnel. “I wasss old when your kind crawled upon their belliesss in their own filth. And you would defy ME, with your worthlessss, broken toy?”
The Kaarme flinched as slivers of metal drove into his scales, taloned feet scrabbling for purchase as the Darkener’s fury pushed him back another foot. But there was a smile on Aurinko’s face for the first time as he faced the horror grinding its way through his grandfather’s form. “You poor, broken thing. You do not understand.”
Glancing down at Leikata - broken once more - the swordsman was unsurprised to see that the same shard remained, just as it had been when first the weapon was splintered. Aurinko stalked forward, touching the shard to the blood running down his arm. “You are old... and selfish. You have only ever cared for yourself, and you only ever will. Your heart is a barren waste.” There was a touch of wolf in the smile now, as the Kaarme Phry lifted his shattered sword into Sentry’s Watch.
“But were I armed with nothing more than a broken stick I would defy you. I do not defy you with this ‘broken toy’. I defy you with the skill of my hands, with the sweat of my brow, with the blood in my veins, and with every beat of my heart. For my heart is empty of myself, and so I fill it with the hopes and dreams of all those who have come before, and those who will come after.”
Snarling, the Darkener raised its spined and scabrous arms, bony claws erupting from its fingertips in a splatter of corrupted blood. “Then come and die a fool.”
Aurinko charged, fangs barred in a killing smile. “Of course, the broken toy helps.” Leikata coursed to life in his hands, its blade a splendorous surge of radiance like a sun in his grasp.
A shriek rose from the entity, a spiraling cry as the Darkener’s shadow splashed out across the distant chamber wall, massive, writhing, unnatural. The scream built even as Leikata’s humming light grew stronger, until the ringing buzz and the screech became as one. Reality itself shuddered, peeling away from a single note of heart-rending clarity that went on and on and on…
Aurinko’s eyes opened, and he sat up slowly. He was somewhere else again. A concerning trend. The Kaarme’s lips twitched as he brushed the thought aside and stood. It was a small chamber, like a monk’s meditation cell. Simple walls of mortared stone planed down to a smooth finish, a closed door, a wood-frame cot, an end table bearing a lit candle in a brass holder.
He rose to his feet, noting that his armor was gone; in its place were the loose white shirt and baggy black pants he had adopted shortly after cutting back - or crossing over. Perhaps the entity had lied. It was a thing of selfish hunger, of fear and hate. No, no, it spoke true, of this at least. The thought was sorrowful, but Aurinko squared his shoulders and accepted it. In truth he had felt the difference, the wrongness of this place. Or perhaps it was more accurate to say that he had felt his wrongness for this place.
The Kaarme Phry spent a long moment staring down into the still, perfect flame of the candle on the nightstand, seeking some answer there. In the end, what he had said to the Darkener was true. If this was not his place… that changed nothing of what he would do. Reaching out, he lifted the taper and spoke to the tongue of fire, setting it dancing in the wind of his breath. “The way is lit, the path revealed. All I ask is the strength to walk it.”
But it was only a candle, and so Aurinko carried it with him as he turned and passed through the door. Beyond was another chamber, this one lit with an arrangement of lanterns and reflecting mirrors that cast their light over a gate set into the far wall, and a pair of marble plinths bearing large, clear containers. The simple worked fieldstone construction continued here along the walls, though the ceiling was a high groined vault, and the floor was dark varnished wood. Between the pedestals and the Kaarme Phry was a low rectangular table.
Aurinko’s eyes lit as he spied the small black box upon the table, along with a pair of clay plates. There was also a slender white carafe, accompanied by delicate cups that had been painstakingly decorated with minute renditions of cherry trees in full blossom. A smile touched with sadness spread across his face as he approached the table and knelt before it reverently. Setting the taper aside, he opened the box to reveal a quartet of elegant chopsticks crossed over small compartments of fish, vegetables, rice, eggs, and two umeboshi.
The swordsman bowed his head for a moment, resting his hands palm-down on the light wood of the table and fighting back tears. He spent several minutes that way, focusing on each breath that flowed in and out of his lungs, until at last the Kaarme finally sighed and nodded to himself. Reaching out, his fingers closed around the carafe, pouring its warm, clear contents into the small cups before dividing the food in the little box evenly between the plate before him and the other, unconcerned that he was apparently dining alone.
And as he ate, he spoke, as though the empty space before him was occupied by his grandfather, as it had been so many times before. He told him everything. The shame he still struggled with, realizing Leikata had broken because of his hesitation. The terror of the passage through that first rift. The wonder of discovering, bit by bit, that the broken blade was still much of what they had hope it might be. The ache of loneliness that gathered around him. The feeling of being adrift, cut off from everything he had known. The tentative connections he had made with the people he had met in this strange new world. The desire, the need to find a way back.
“Her name was Rana,” Aurinko concluded, setting his chopsticks aside as he finished his umeboshi. “I think you would have liked her, very much.” He reached out, lifting the delicate porcelain cup and holding it beneath his nostrils, drawing in the liquid’s sharp savory scent. Lifting his head, the Kaarme Phry drained the contents in a single pull, smiling slightly as the burn of its descent drew a cough from him. Strong as I remember.
The swordsman set the cup - so exquisitely and carefully decorated - rim-down on the floor and rose. Then, with a swift, decisive motion he brought all his weight down on one foot, crushing the thin porcelain into shards beneath his heel. “Beauty is transitory, and we cling to it at our peril. Let it pass into memory, that it may be forever ours.” Folding his hands before him, Aurinko bowed respectfully to the empty place across the table, his eyes dry and his voice steady. “Thank you, isoisä, for this lesson and many others. I will remember.”
Leaving the table behind, the Kaarme approached the pedestals, inspecting them in silence. Each bore a small illuminated red switch and was surmounted by a tall cylinder of glass. Upon his left was the steelthread armor, complete with hardlight projectors, and his carbine, waiting silently. To his right was the leather and steel dou and kusazuri, his crimson belt and Pelastaa in its sheath. At first he thought Leikata was gone, but a moment later he saw it, leaning unobtrusively next to the gate in the shadow of the right-hand plinth.
A choice then. Aurinko glanced between the two switches, knowing instinctively that triggering one would render the other inert. He unconsciously rubbed his right hand over the scales of his left arm, palm tingling slightly at the feel of unfamiliar scars - relics of his strange encounter with the Darkener.
The assault carbine would make swift work of his foes. Strange as this land was, there was nothing like that weapon here. With it he could carve a path through his opposition, devastate them with solar fury while their blows fell impotently on his hardlight defenses.
And he would be nothing more than another butcher.
Not a choice, a temptation. The swordsman touched the glass for a moment as he gave the weapon and armor of his home a final look. And then he turned away, flipping the switch on the right-hand pedestal. Rather than lifting, the glass seemed to simply melt away, there one moment and gone the next. But Aurinko paid it little mind, reaching in and drawing out his armor to garb himself for battle once more.
“When the world is cast into darkness, there is always temptation.” It was his father’s voice, quiet and steady. “And that temptation is to meet the darkness on its own terms, to take up the weapons it wields and turn them back upon it. But that is only giving in to fear. The enemy’s tools will only make you weaker. Our victory will come from our refusal to surrender ourselves to the darkness, even should it consume us one by one.” The Kaarme Phry almost felt his father’s touch, once on his forehead, and then over his heart. “Fight with your head. But remember too that you fight with your heart. When the world is cast into darkness, only the brave can lead it out again.”
Aurinko cinched the crimson silk about his waist, sliding Leikata and Pelastaa through it as he turned to face the gate. The portal rumbled open, the still silence broken by the cry of the chanters announcing each who had been Chosen. Like the Cellar before it, the grand expanse of incarnadine sand hummed. But this was a different song.
Power. Potential. Presence. The world itself hung upon a crystalline thread, waiting. And then the great Pillars flared, the quiet shattered by the screams of a thousand thousand spectators howling for blood and carnage.
The swordsman drew Leikata and stepped onto the sands. “I am ready.”